In India, 61 out of every 1,000 children born a year are born with a disability. With a poverty rate of 21.9 percent, about 13 of those children are born on the streets. Every single one of those kids is shamed, along with their mothers. The negative stigma of clubfoot and other disabilities is immense in India. In 2011, my brother was born with clubfoot here, in the US. Clubfoot treatment is close to my heart as my brother was born with clubfoot and would have had to live with stigma if he lived in India. Thankfully, he received treatment and is now running around like any other 6 year old.
In the summer of 2016, I visited a government-run hospital in Bangalore, India, my mother’s hometown. Bangalore is a metropolitan city in Central South India and has one of the highest rate of poverty. As most of India, its government is corrupt and does nothing to help the population, taking bribes and taxpayer money for themselves. In fact, Bangalore’s municipal government had cut many programs which left poor people scrambling for health care.
Before leaving, my mom and I had a discussion about what I would see there. She told me of the horrors the impoverished had to face and how their only hope for medical treatment lied with hospitals like these. I was shocked. In Silicon Valley, I lived in a bubble where everyone had enough to eat and had everything given to them. This bubble clouded my vision of the world. To me, this world was a world of only happiness and joy, never of starvation and despair. I never understood that children would work the minute they were 5 years-old and by 12 would be working as hard as an adult in the US. The horrors that these children faced were virtually unknown to me, occupying only a small speck in my consciousness.
While driving to the hospital, I saw the buildings around me become lesser and lesser in quality. Eventually, houses turned into shacks built out of scrap wood and metal. It hit me then that the hospital was in this neighborhood.
When we reached, I saw men, women, and children wearing tattered clothes, just enough to cover their torso and upper legs. The walls and floors were scratched; the paint peeling. The medical equipment was ancient, as if it had time traveled from the 20th century. It was as if the hospital could fall from the slightest shake of the Earth. Nurses and doctors were out and about with grim, dispirited expressions, trying to make sure everyone could be treated. The patients were desolate, their faces gaunt and hollow, no emotion appearing because that was just another day for them, a day where they had empty stomachs and empty promises from everyone who tried to help them. Their bodies were skinnier than skeletons, emaciated to the point where hunger was not present in their minds. We eventually reached the orthopedic wing of the hospital. There, I saw a long line of desperate people, trying to get an appointment with the doctor. I was ushered into a small room, filled to the brim with papers and two volunteers who worked and worked, trying to help everyone in the infinite line of destitute people.
Every day of their lives, these volunteers saw horrors that popped their bubbles and opened their minds to reality. After talking to them, I learned that the volunteers were always understaffed and received very little funding from the corrupt Indian government. My thinking really started changing while talking to them. I saw the people in the line behind me in a much different light. Many of them were considered part of the Untouchable caste, the lowest caste in the Hindu Caste System. This system is now outlawed, but because it was a basis of the Hindu religion, many still practice it. All of upper-class India still treats them as Untouchables, as dirty, unwashed people who do not have the brains to earn a sustainable income and deserve nothing. To me, they became people who were the most worthy for charity, those who go through their lives never having enough to eat and now they come to this pediatric orthopedic wing, trying to make sure their children do not have to live in poverty and have to survive the social stigma that comes from being disabled in India.
I watched two of the patients come in and request treatment. One family was a young, 20-25 year-old woman who came in with her father as the father of the baby had disappeared. The woman was left with a baby who had two clubfeet and a neurological disorder. She had red eyes and a hopeless expression, as if she had given up on the world. She never contemplated leaving her child on the side of the road, like many other mothers do, usually forced by her family. She wanted to raise her child but at the time, she thought she would never be able to let her child walk. Her hope started coming back after the volunteers told her it was treatable, until they told her the cost. I thought the treatment was free, until my mom told me that it was cheaper than a regular hospital, but money was still needed to buy the materials and pay salaries. After that certain patient, a volunteer took me and my mom to another room, the doctor’s office.
One of the doctors came in after 15 minutes, apologizing for the delay and then proceeded to explain to my mom and I the process for treating disabilities. I could see that the doctor was an overworked man who barely could get through every single patient that came in through those doors. I could also see that he had, with great difficulty, managed to squeeze us in for a quick meeting. He began by talking to us about the patients he saw every day. He gave us stories of children who received treatment so late, they would never be able to walk. At that, my eyes starting filling up with tears. I never thought of these children when pestering my mom for a new toy or for school supplies. The bubble of joy that surrounded me starting weakening, He told us that braces and metal bars, used to keep the foot or bone in line were sometimes sold by families for money. Although these braces were one of the most important things for treatment of clubfoot and other disabilities, people still sold them. He compared the quality of treatment in India versus the US and how the treatment in India used lower-rate materials that are heavier and less-effective in treatment. My mom and the doctor kept on conversing about something in the local language, but I was in another dimension at the time. My mind kept on going back to the countless times I was rude to a homeless person and the countless times I ignored them pleading for food. The bubble the kept my eyes closed for so long popped at the moment. It had been weakening through that entire time, but only now did my eyes fully open.
My thinking changed almost completely after those few minutes. I felt as if the world around me was completely different, as if I had entered another realm. I realized those thousands of children all across India would never have a normal childhood without the scores of doctors giving their careers up to helping and treating these children. Suddenly, these doctors became heroes to me. Ordinary people giving up so much to make sure every child can succeed in life. To me, they became extraordinary people, people who gave and gave but never got anything in return. This world is entirely based on give and take. To see people only giving and never taking was really inspiring to see. I only wish I could do that.
After my chat with the doctor, my mom and I stayed to watch some of the more serious patients visiting the doctor. One of the patients was a 13 year-old girl with scoliosis or where the spine is bent in a sideways or c-shape. She was about my age but walked in an interesting way and her entire torso leaned to one side. Her scoliosis had just started developing, around 2 years before my visit. I could not understand most of the appointment as they were talking in the local language, something I did not know but my mother did. The entire family looked as if it was about to fall apart. The girl had issues at her school with bullying and ostracizing. The lower castes in India do not understand much about disabilities and how they are not contagious. She became an outcast and will be forever.
Soon after, my mom and I walked out and left the hospital. The entire time, I did not say a word, not after such a poignant time. The entire car ride back to my grandparent's house, I sat and thought about my mindset. In those few hours, the world around me simply changed into not just a world of happiness and joy, but a world of despair and poverty. I realized that in Silicon Valley, me and everyone else lived in a bubble, where all we have to worry about is which Ivy League college we might go to or what our grade was on a math test. In some places, people have to worry about how much food they might get or if they have enough money to go to school. That day, I joined the select few of this world who know of the horrors the penniless must face every day. Why do we live in a world where some worry about idealistic, non-material things which do not matter to survival while others must struggle every day to survive? Why must we live in a world where we have two distinct classes, the rich and the poor? Why does avarice stop the poor from ever having a better standard of living? Why must we live in a world where nobody is equal? Why must we live in a world where the rich are clouded by a bubble of unreality?